Left: Paul Muldoon. Photo by Sigrid Estrada. Courtesy Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. Right: Yusef Komunyakaa. Photo by Don Getsug Studios. Courtesy of the University Press of New England.
PM I am interested in the musicality of language. Anyone who writes verse has some notion of the rhythm of the line. There’s always an oral or aural aspect. I’ve lived here for ten years, and I don’t speak the same language I did twenty years ago. Mind you, I was thirty-five when I left Ireland so a lot of it was ingrained, but things have changed. The poems now reflect the variety of language to which I’ve been exposed, and also to which many readers have been exposed. We’re now operating, despite our insistence on the claims of the local and parochial, in a global context, where one can try to make sense of what’s happening in contemporary Chinese poetry. That’s not to say that there aren’t complications. Yusef, do you find yourself thinking about a notional or ideal reader?
YK I don’t, but I realize that my work is immersed in Southern idiom, along with an acquired literary language. I’m trying to make both function tonally side by side to create music that doesn’t have to achieve an absolute scale of meaning, but more or less to induce a certain feeling, because that’s what literature is. How I like reading poems is to return, going to the bottom of a poem and finding myself again at the top reading down. It’s a cumulative feeling.
PM That makes me think of T.S. Eliot’s remark about poetry being able to communicate before it’s entirely understood. Each year a group of about fifty judges comes to Princeton for a weekend to talk to the faculty about their various subjects. Their questions are quite probing, as you might imagine. One of them asked me: “In what part of your body do you know that your poem is finished?” It’s a pretty good question.
YK Yes, the physicality of language. The tongue married to the heart, and emotions defined by flesh.
PM Supposedly there’s a chord called the Devil’s Chord that evokes an extraordinary visceral effect, it makes the hair stand on the back of one’s neck. That’s the answer I gave; that there’s some logic of the body, some disturbance that registers at a physical level in poetry.
YK It’s an emotional logic. The way the body operates makes me think of the blue note. That impossible note the jazz musician attempts to reach for, and it consequently becomes the engine that drives creative improvisation.
PM When you sit down to write a poem, do you have a notion of a blue note?
YK My process is to write everything down and not worry about the shape. Then I impose a structural frame. Since one is working with tools that one loves, he or she knows them well and can trust them. Rhythm extends the possibilities within the shape of language—it’s reaching for that surprise, the blue note.
PM The unexpected.
YK The unexpected becomes the challenge, to achieve that and have the possibility of duplicating it, expanding it even further.
Interview From BOMB Magazine Issue 65, Fall 1998. You can read the rest of this exchange on the magazine’s Digital Archive. Paul Muldoon and Yusef Komunyakaa will be reading on Governors Island, NYC on September 22, 2012, at 2PM as part of the exhibition Mark di Suvero at Governors Island: Presented by Storm King Art Center and Poets House.